ZIMBABWE: Universities demand US dollars

Universities and their lecturers are demanding payment in foreign currency, with the institutions charging dollar tuition fees of US$700 and $1,500 per semester, as inflation in the crisis-torn southern African country plays havoc with the local currency and the education and health sectors collapse. Students are not sure whether they will get their results after lecturers declined to mark examination scripts, citing poor salaries and working conditions.

Problems for higher education institutions have been compounded by the government's failure to release a 2009 national budget as it awaits the outcome of talks to form an all-inclusive administration with Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) leader Morgan Tsvangirai as Prime Minister and long-time despot Robert Mugabe as President.

Prospective university students have also been affected as secondary school teachers declined to mark school examinations. The teachers also cited poor pay - a development that saw the government postponing the reopening of schools from 12 to 28 January.

Academics, teachers, nurses and doctors have been on strike since last year, forcing the United Nations Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF) to pledge to pay health workers in hard currency, leaving the government still saddled with problems in the education sector.

Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Higher and Tertiary Education, Dr Washington Mbizo, told University World News that even though universities and colleges were already demanding payment in US dollars, the government had yet to make a decision on the development.

"Cabinet will sit in due course to deliberate on the matter after receiving proposals and recommendations from universities and schools to charge in foreign currency. That meeting will take place sooner rather than later," Mbizo said.

To fight the effects of world-record inflation that has seen Zimbabwe's central bank printing money around the clock, as denominations lose value daily, the government has licensed some shops to charge in foreign currency, leading to goods and service providers not licensed to demand payment in foreign currency. The move has resulted in widespread suffering, as most Zimbabweans do not have access to the US currency.

Last week, the Zimbabwe National Students Union (Zinasu) launched a campaign to stop the government approving demands that education be paid in foreign currency. The campaign includes lobbying legislators and demonstrations, and Zinasu has petitioned the ministry against the dollar fees proposed by state universities.

Initiating the 'national campaign against the dollarisation of education', the student body said in a statement: "Zinasu will not allow the government and its tired cronies to destroy the future of students, and hereby calls upon the principals in the Global Political Agreement to urgently chart a solution for Zimbabwe."

But a respected Zimbabwean economist, John Robertson, told University World News that by the end of February "nobody will be transacting in local currency". Robertson said he expected civil servants - including soldiers and the police - would also start demanding payment in foreign currency and he wondered how the government would deal with that.

"I think the Zimbabwean dollar is going to disappear from the picture very soon. No matter how much they print, no one will want to use them," Robertson said.

Zimbabwean lawmakers are currently debating a motion tabled in parliament by Tendai Biti, an Opposition legislator for Harare East. Biti - the MDC's chief negotiator in talks between Mugabe and Tsvangirai facilitated by the Southern African Development Community (SADC) - is a lawyer educated at the University of Zimbabwe, the country's oldest higher education institution.

"UZ was supposed to open on 1 September 2008 but it did not open. Even when it opened there was no student who was resident," Biti told parliament. "There is no public ablution commonly known as a toilet. Ten years ago it was the best university in Africa. Now employers will have to look at graduates from UZ twice."

Only time will tell whether an inclusive government will be formed. But the latest of many rounds of talks aimed at its creation collapsed last week, following disagreement yet again over the sharing of cabinet posts between the MDC and Mugabe's Zanu-PF party. The sad case of Zimbabwe has been referred to a SADC summit to be held this week.